Why the New Nielsen Ratings Might Be Viewers' Biggest Hope

By Cory Barker

Oct 17, 2012

We have all watched a favorite show get the axe seemingly because of poor Nielsen ratings. It sucks, especially when as a viewer, you feel powerless. You can turn every TV in your house—heck, every TV in your neighborhood—to Nikita or Community, but if none of those households are participants in Nielsen’s data collection (and chances are they aren’t, considering the current number of Nielsen families is around 25,000 to 30,000, or about .02 percent of the country). There’s literally nothing you can do but find these rare, unicorn-like Nielsen families and convince them to turn on the TV—and even then, there’s no guarantee that those people would correctly report the experience.

It’s a flawed, damn-near-broken system. And it’s not just frustrated viewers who recognize that. In recent years, various media entities have called for alternatives. The Coalition for Innovative Media Measurement is a group led by a number of global conglomerates like NBC Universal, News Corp, Viacom, Disney, Microsoft, and Unilever. CIMM formed in 2009 and has pursued a Nielsen alternative ever since; yet, here we are three years later. When the biggest transnational companies in the world can’t make something happen, it’s troubling.

The Real Issue: Reporting

But even though the Nielsen methodology (small representative samples, the still-present use of journaling) is a major point of contention for viewers and for factions like CIMM, the biggest issue for us at home is in the reporting of the Nielsen figures and really all viewership data. In a perfect world, we would all be better served if the media—including us here at TV.com—just stopped reporting the ratings all together or at least stopped reporting them as a be-all-end-all. But we need some relative measure of success to discuss, and until the industry itself stops relying so much on the Nielsens, we’re going to report on them.

However, there are some sites on the web that try to claim that certain ratings or data points can categorically prove a show’s success, not to mention its renewal or cancellation chances, as if networks in the 21st century consider nothing else when making scheduling decisions.

That sort of reporting and logic is unbelievably flawed, but it makes sense that it’s come to be taken as gospel because there’s so much data that we as viewers don’t have. The networks have so much more information than we do. They know exactly how many people are legally watching shows online, no matter the web site. They might even have a decent idea of how many people are watching illegally as well. They also know who’s clicking what link, following what Twitter or Facebook accounts, listening to what podcast, etc. You can best believe that in 2012, when network execs decide to renew or cancel a show they don’t just look at the 18-49 demographic rating, nor do they likely have a target number in that demo (or others) that a show must hit to survive. It’s not 2.0 or bust.

Therefore, while the networks and studios are actually much more meticulous about these processes than we might want to believe, the frustrating part is that we just don’t get to see those processes. They aren’t required to reveal that proprietary information, so over the last few years, as ratings have gone down and online streaming/illegal downloading as gone up, we’ve all been in a holding pattern.

Until now... sort of.

Earlier this month, Nielsen announced that after a multi-month trial with some of the world’s biggest online content providers—including ESPN, Facebook, and Hulu—it is going to start reporting online video viewership numbers. These ratings, known as the Cross-Platform Campaign Ratings, will aim to provide “comparable metrics across TV and digital, measuring unique audience on each, along with overlapping audience and total combined unique audience.” This should give content producers, providers, and advertisers a better idea not only of who's watching what and when they're watching it (data that was surely somewhat available to them before; it’s not like ESPN had no idea who's been using their WatchESPN app or streaming services) but more importantly, Nielsen will at some point publicly detail this information to consumers as well. As far as I can tell, Nielsen hasn’t said when the information will be publicly available, but if there are data points collected by an “unbiased” third party (instead of internally) that networks and advertisers can use to promote themselves or their excellence, they’re going to do so.

How This Impacts You

For viewers, this news means that certain beloved shows could have a better chance of staying on the air. So many series gain a substantial amount of viewers in the Plus-7 DVR numbers, imagine how their ratings could improve with streams from the same week added in. This is also a sizable step in knowing the stakes in the multi-screen environment. Much like with the current television ratings, we’ll eventually learn what kind of online views are normal or abnormal (good or bad).

Perhaps most importantly and interestingly, this theoretically gives viewers a better chance to directly impact whether or not a show lives or dies. Right now, it’s slightly unclear whether or not Nielsen is going to monitor every video streamed on a web site where “television” content appears or if they’re going to go with some sort of representative model like they do on television. However, it is still quite likely that audiences will be able to impact the number of views of both shows and advertisements because once advertisers know the degree to which consumers are engaging with their promotional materials, they’ll be willing to put more money online, which will only spur the networks to put more content online to make sure their Cross-Platform ratings are high.

Meaning, right now, fans often push others to watch a show on Hulu or Netflix when it’s on the cancellation bubble, but they don’t actually know what kind of impact that has (other than “it has an impact”). But if these new ratings develop in the way that they should and the way that so many bigwigs in the industry want them to, fans might actually know with certainly that their streaming of an episode of Parks and Recreation actually helps it get another season.

Armed with that knowledge, television viewers could have a lot more power. Recall Chuck fans going to Subway to buy $5 footlongs in that show’s name. They went directly to the advertiser and legitimately shaped Chuck’s lifespan. With these ratings in place and the advertisers on-board, viewers could just as easily enact a campaign not unlike what Chuck fans did. Like, for example:

“Oh, Buick, I see that you’re running ads every time I watch Upscale NBC Comedy X. Well, to make you realize how important the show is to me, I’m going to actively click on your ad each time it plays and I’m going to encourage fellow viewers to do the same. Now you have real evidence that proves people are engaging with your ads (and maybe the product itself), so perhaps you’d be willing to give NBC and Hulu more money in the name of the show and its fans?”

Chances are, the networks and the advertisers are always going to keep certain data private. Now there’s an active third party involved. So while this is just one admittedly optimistic example of what could happen in this new reality of online viewership measurement—and while that reality might still be a little ways away—the big point is that it is now on-track to happen. It’s no longer just a pipe dream. So although the Nielsen ratings might be a big thorn in viewers’ sides, this new form of them might be their biggest hope.

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  • elliander Dec 20, 2014

    How about we have all new televisions arrive with a built in feedback system? With Netflix they know exactly how many people watch what shows because they keep track of all the data. They associate that information to a profile (without a name to protect privacy) so they also know how many people like what types of shows and with this information they are able to accurately predict the success of a show instantly. They can come out with renewal decisions instantly and can approve a new show idea without even having to see a trailer for it simply by using the demographic information. That system blows the Nielson system away. If all televisions were capable of tracking this kind of information and sending it back (it's all digital so it should be easy) it would be like turning all homes into Nielson homes. It would also help sell the next generation television because it would campaign on the promise to give you a voice in the success of a show. This feeling of influence would also increase television viewing habits as a whole. The same system could also be used to determine what commercials people actually watched or skipped through and if these televisions had built in DVR they would be able to monitor DVD behavior as well - something that NO Nielson TV is capable of.

    A system like that is the ONLY thing to get me to put cable TV back in my house.

  • andrewclarkweaver Jan 27, 2014

    I've got it ...finally a solution to good , no great shows been axed because of false rating system , I live in the UK and don't mind admitting that I use P2P to get my US tv fix on before it gets shown in the UK otherwise , I'm not gonna get to see them don't have sky/virgin they are way too expensive for the content that is actually worth watching. plus I pay for broadband so why not... also I'm an advocate for the shows that are then shown in the UK to friends and family and work colleagues or whatever... Often I believe that shows are canx simply because of the scheduling people forget that they are on when living busy lives. Case in point new show just launched 3 episodes in takes a two month brake whats all that about... And as a collective we don't watch tv like we used to do. sitting down at specific times that's a fact and now DVR,Demand services , online streaming (and downloads legal or otherwise ) are the way we watch and share content. So neilson ratings system is the problem .. whats the solution .... for the 21 st century viewer , the always connected viewer, And lets not forget that it is the viewer that drives the show ... I in some respects like the idea of one contributor states that , just delivering the content online through a subscription services , therefore the network could monitor traffic /subscriptions ...I could see this working as worldwide a pay and watch service rather than subscription service. However I have stated that its the viewer that drives the show's longevity.....But how do we get the views of the every man , How do we know what people are downloading , of course they could create a bot that highlights every mention tweet on Facebook/twitter but that's just trending butt that's just false social proofing.... I believe this is my solution to get an instant world view of actual viewers is to get the viewers the always connected 21 century viewers to Say that I have watched this show . I liked this show , I disliked this. show through the use of of a App of some kind. In conclusion the network would have a realistic account of the numbers and as well as having feedback from viewers across the globe this could also potentially open up new revenue streams and syndication markets across the globe.

  • tv_gonzo Oct 19, 2012

    I can't wait for shows like Community to suddenly and over night be one of the higher rated shows due to this. When the nbc execs start to realize that their target audience always was there, but just didn't count. It will be like "why has community the highest video on demand ratings and basically owns any other show? And why is no one watching Whitney online?". Ok. Maybe i am exaggerating here a little bit but I think that's going to happen in one way or the other.

  • JT_Kirk Oct 19, 2012

    Why should any network care if an ad is clicked if that click has no value? Are these companies so worried about branding on a national level that nationally-known brands are going to buy knowingly worthless traffic? Oh wait, these are the same dummies who buy national TV ads that are horribly targeted and supremely wasteful, so yeah, they are that worried about the vapor audience.

  • CoryBarker1 Oct 19, 2012

    I don't disagree about the system itself being flawed. In fact, I've written about it. You'd think that advertisers would not rely so much on TV time in 2012, but they do. So it's only reasonable to assume they'll want to do the same online.

  • bicelis Oct 18, 2012

    A copy of my comment somewhere lower in the comments. An idea for Cory for the next article..

    "A difficult topic but an important one - taste in television. I've recently been having many thoughts about this. Why is it that I now like certain shows and I think some others are bad even if know I would have liked them several years ago. Does taste change? Is it a path that more or less everybody takes once they start watching more tv and reading about it? Or simply I've become a snob and 'think' that TV I watch is good only because some critics said so? Am I arrogant? Or maybe I'm right and I start having better 'taste' in TV?

    I know such topic would probably gather much discussion and even anger. But it could be very interesting :)"

  • noelrk Oct 18, 2012

    I say this as a grad student myself, and it is meant as both self-deprecating and serious: YES. Let's ask the grad student to talk about taste cultures!

  • CoryBarker1 Oct 19, 2012

    OH NO. I've written papers about this. I'd love to do that. However, it might take a lot of interviewing and research that I *might not* (read: absolutely do not) have time for. It's a good idea though.

  • Taylor-May Oct 18, 2012

    Agree with Arithon_UK below, we get some shows over here especially on Sky Atlantic saying coming from the states the best new shows. One being Alcatraz, full well knowing it was already cancelled after one season!

    Therfore making people invest into a show that after 10-12 episodes will just vanish without a trace.

    The problem with ratings especially with shows that are global, you need to get what people are watching world wide as well as in the states, I have no idea how you would even do that, as there are lots of fantastic shows, Breaking Bad for instance that are not even shown in this country, yet the show has lots of UK fans.

    Feel powerless being in the UK to have any say on programming that is shared on a global scale

  • borgsblueyes Oct 19, 2012

    They don't care about non US ratings in the US, American networks are not going to make tv for us no matter how much we enjoy it. Plus the population of the UK will never allow ratings like they get in the states. I'm Irish so imagine how insignificant our little population is to ratings. The most watched show ever is about 1.2 million.

    Netflix have announced that they will have season 5 of Breaking Bad from November 1st in the UK and Ireland.

  • CoryBarker1 Oct 19, 2012

    This is true. Unfortunately. The international markets are just icing on the cake; rarely do they impact anything up front.

  • Arithon_UK Oct 18, 2012

    The system is totally broken and needs replacing. Something from this century would be nice. Currently when we see a new series in the UK, we already know it's already cancelled.

    FireFly never even made it to UK screens at all! I had to import the series on BluRay after seeing "Serenity".

    I've been saying since the advent of high speed internet, that all TV content providers should abandon the "single bidder per marketplace" model and offer programmes online for ad-free subscription or ad-inserted free download.

    Who would even bother to cut the ads if the download was FREE and NOW?

    Filling out a membership survey, would give the TV companies a marketing demographic like they've never had, with effectively one-to-one direct advertising globally.

    But that requires thinking in THIS century and they are still living in the 20th or possible the 19th...

  • Taylor-May Oct 18, 2012

    Agree with Arithon_UK below, we get some shows over here especially on Sky Atlantic saying coming from the states the best new shows. One being Alcatraz, full well knowing it was already cancelled after one season!

    Therfore making people invest into a show that after 10-12 episodes will just vanish without a trace.

    The problem with ratings especially with shows that are global, you need to get what people are watching world wide as well as in the states, I have no idea how you would even do that, as there are lots of fantastic shows, Breaking Bad for instance that are not even shown in this country, yet the show has lots of UK fans.

    Feel powerless being in the UK to have any say on programming that is shared on a global scale

  • ToddMurray Oct 18, 2012

    Thank you for writing about this, Cory. I hope you and the rest of TV.com keep discussing this frequently so that it can help spur ongoing change (or at least to further the discussion of change) going forward.

    Television viewing has changed dramatically since this system was created. There is no longer one B&W; television per home with only three channels to choose from.

    Imagine if today's drug trials were conducted the same way, where only 2 people are given the test drug and the other 9,998 are given a placebo. How those two people react to the drug is not a valid determination of what works best for all 10,000. Scary actually. At least television isn't a life or death determination. But I still don't want 2 random households to be the barometer for what I and the other 9,998 households have on our televisions at that exact moment. I want my vote to count for something.

    I would feel much better if it were a company other than Nielsen doing this, but at least it's a start. They have a stranglehold on the industry that needs to be broken.

    Change is good!

  • safibwana Oct 18, 2012

    I doubt it will be a model. It is too easy to get the exact counts from Hulu, Netflix, and the network site. There is even a standard called COUNTER that is already being used for video databases used by libraries, and a related protocol called SUSHI to communicate that information from those sites automatically to the harvester. It would be way more work to use a model than to use the actual numbers, even if we assume there are dozens of legitimate streaming sites (there aren't).

    As for the illegal use, the networks have SOME idea, but it is an awful idea. Occasionally, you will see them report torrent numbers, as if that was still a majority of how files were shared. Views from illegal sources bring in no revenue though (until product placement replaces commercials), so I don't think anyone cares about those numbers.

  • CoryBarker1 Oct 18, 2012

    That's one of the big problems right? We KNOW that there are literally dozens and dozens of better options out there. That's what makes it frustrating. I'm trying to explore how it would work using THIS (admittedly shoddy) model. But your insights are great.

  • Mcarson09 Oct 18, 2012

    DirecTV, Dish, Comcast, Time Warner, and other TV providers can already track what you watch, so I never understood why companies didn't ask their subscribers if they would allow their usage stats to be sent to Nielsen. If it would increase the chance of their favorite TV shows getting another season, broadcast TV providers would probably be shocked by the number of people that would say YES to having their watching habits tracked,. Likewise ISPs know what you do online and so do the websites you visit, so why has it taken Nielsen so long to come up with this new online collection method? The web statistics might be easy for Nielsen to collect right now, but this does nothing new for the old TV collection method Nielsen uses that has failed us so many times in the past. I'd rather companies drop the Nielsen system all together and create a new system that uses more than .02% of the population in the broadcast arena and combine that with the online viewership statistics. Sure it might cost them some money in the short run, but the amount of money they could make from a more accurate system in the long run would easily tip the scales.

  • Eric10301 Oct 18, 2012

    I've been wondering this myself. The number of internet enabled cable and satellite boxes in the country has to be in the tens of millions. That alone should be able to provide a better rating system than Nielsen. You'd think all the recent disputes between content creators and providers would make the telcoms even more inclined to figuring out who is really watching what.

  • CoryBarker1 Oct 18, 2012

    I agree with this wholeheartedly. I've said for years that if a cable provider emailed me and asked if I wanted to put a chip in my TV or something, I would sign up in a heartbeat.

    I'd love for Nielsen to be ditched too, but we have to work within the confines we're given. I guess.

  • Mcarson09 Oct 19, 2012

    Well if you want real change... It comes from outside the box.

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